A crescendo of long-held tensions among the Eritrean diaspora in Canada and globally has recently culminated in a series of violent incidents taking place at several Eritrean-themed festivals. The conflict has inflamed divisions between festival participants and Eritrean protestors, who assert that such events secure support and funds for an oppressive regime in their homeland.
A recent skirmish among various Eritrean social factions in a northeast segment of Calgary resulted in minor injuries, confirmed by police reports. Video evidence depicted men wielding long sticks and bats. This alarming incident was not isolated, with previous altercations transpiring at similar festivals held in Toronto and Edmonton. Disturbingly, echoes of this trouble have resonated overseas, with related disturbances witnessed in Sweden, Germany, and most recently, in Tel Aviv, Israel. This escalation of violence incited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to demand the deportation of the involved Eritrean migrants.
The key festivals spurring contention are advertised as superficial cultural gatherings, yet their detractors argue that their true purpose is political; supposed peaceable events manipulated into propaganda machines by supporters of the Eritrean government. These critics maintain that the festivals are designed to consolidate control over the Eritrean diaspora in Canada and fundraise in direct benefit of their government.
Highlighting the significance of the festivals, Awet Weldemichael, an established historian and professor at Queen’s University mentioned that these annual festivals have been a source of dispute for years. According to him, Eritreans who have escaped persecution and suffering in their homeland are vehement in their call for these events to be dismissed due to their overt political associations.
The festivals have also attracted significant attention from Eritrea, with the government expressing its support for these events and condemning those who have left the country and voiced criticism against it. Yet, festival-goers and organizers rebuff these allegations, steadfastly asserting that the festivals are purely an opportunity for Eritrean immigrants to celebrate their rich culture and history.
Despite this ongoing controversy, it is pointedly clear that the role of these festivals has evolved over time, specifically since Eritrea has become akin to an authoritarian state. The dissensions among the diaspora, reasoned to be based on cultural similarities, have reached a boiling point this year, manifested through alarming escalations into violence.
Tensions culminated in early August, when an Eritrean festival in a west-end Toronto park took a tragic turn: What began as peaceful protests soon spiralled into chaos, with several tents alight, and terrifying reports of a man brandishing a knife. Similar eruptions of violence marked another Eritrean event in Edmonton, where a dozen people were injured.
These clashes have deep roots in the history of Eritrea, a history marred by war, persecution, and arduous surveillance. Justifiably, the heavy militarization of Eritrea has motivated many to flee the country, with the spectre of forced military conscription looming ominously.
The country has often been embroiled in armed conflicts, most notably with Ethiopia, causing untold devastation to both countries. The strained relationship continued throughout the years, in particular during the armed conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray regional state in 2020. It was this involvement in the Tigray region that analysts suggest could be the catalyst for Eritreans’ frustrations to boil over into violent protests at the diaspora events.
Yet despite the mounting international condemnation and the pivotal need for diplomacy among the opposing Eritrean factions, the official stance of the Eritrean government remains apparently unfazed. The United Nation’s deputy human rights chief, Nada Al-Nashif, has expressed concern over Eritrea’s grossly inadequate attempts to address long-standing human rights violations, further deepening the divide among its people, both in their homeland and worldwide.